When I was young I was left, but I was never a communist, I couldn’t share a bathroom.
I’ve come, unbeknownst to myself, to the AARP screening of To Rome with Love (2012), the new movie from Woody Allen. It’s 1:55, so that’s probably not too surprising. What was surprising, and hilarious in its own way, was what they laughed at and when. It was pretty similar to going to a Broadway play and some member of the Theatre Royal family comes out and the 20 or so die-hards lead the way for the rest of us middle class dilettantes in a short applause. Woody came out and shook like he was at a rave and they laughed like Chaplin came out as the tramp. Welcome to New York.
Hayley (Alison Pill) meets a handsome young Italian man, Michaelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and the two fall in love over the summer. The parents, Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis), come in to get to know the to-be in-laws. Jerry was an avant-garde classical producer who staged Rigoletto (1851) with everyone dressed as white mice. Jerry finds out Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), Michaelangelo’s father, has a stellar voice and pushes him, despite Michaelangelo’s wishes, to try to do something with it.
Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) comes to Rome with his wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). He’s a lawyer, I think, and about to embark on a profitable career. But his family is rather uptight and middle class, so he’s got to impress. Milly goes out to get her hair done (to impress), but loses her phone and her way. For some reason a prostitute, Anna (Penélope Cruz), is sent up to Antonio’s room but Antonio doesn’t understand what’s going on until it’s too late and the family comes in and thinks Anna is Milly. They decide to go with it.
Then there’s the famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) who, on his venturing around Rome meets up with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and seems to oddly hang around (and is occasionally invisible to everyone but Jack)–I’ll let you put that together yourself. Jack is in a relationship with Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally’s friend Monica (Ellen Page), who is an actress and would-be intellectual, comes to stay with them. John sees danger incoming, but can’t convince young Jack.
Meanwhile, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an absolutely ordinary Italian man, suddenly and without any apparent reason becomes incredibly famous. Interviewers ask him about every facet of his life and appear to obsess about it. Whether intentional or not, his every move becomes a comment on fashion, life, culture, or something. The paparazzi follow him everywhere, people ask for autographs, beautiful women want to be with him and often.
That’s probably the longest stage-setting I’ve ever had. As you can tell, this is an ensemble piece. What you may be wondering is how they all intertwine. They don’t, that’s how. Not usually a recipe for success, but this movie avoids all the traps that such a venture sets. Allen does not attempt to go back to front on a story, a twist, and the resolution. Actually, that’s exactly what he does, but nothing more. That’s a good thing. Keep it simple. In baseball or football terms, “Keep the ball in front of you.”
Why some multi-storied movies work and some don’t is still unclear to me. This one does (work). They aren’t all dynamite, but they’re contained. My least favorite are the newlyweds new to Rome. It was farsical, no really, it was farce, and I don’t really enjoy that. It was interesting to see an Italian Woody Allen, but not enough to get over the whimsical. What this story line says about anything is about the nature of relationships. I prefer the satire.
Benigni, who plays the instant celebrity, is fantastic and probably a part of the best story. This story and Woody’s could easily support whole films on their own. Of course, you’d have to put together two plot turns to keep things interesting, so I think Allen made the right decision. He has these great stories, makes his point, and gets out of there. No dwelling on characterizations or deep drama. There’s no time to get drawn off the tracks. Woody’s story does, sometimes, have more conflict than I can quite understand, but the up-shot is too much fun.
Baldwin was great, too. Everyone in that story line was solid, but it is Woody Allen’s ever-ready standby of adultery and sophistication. I would say that the writing here brings this story line well above it has any right to be. I mean, I don’t think cliche is a criticism, but there’s cliche and rehashing the same basic plot in every movie. He gives Baldwin some great commentary on the action. See, it only took a tweak and an old tale is made brand-spanking new. But it’s Baldwin that makes it work. I’d love to see him as a villain in a movie. He’s been pretty divorced from serious work since he puffed up and went gray–flatterer–but he’s still got the voice for evil.
There was a bit of a mistake on the character front for Jack. Eisenberg is supposed to be playing Baldwin, not Woody Allen. Obviously, Eisenberg is more naturally suited to playing the awkward, anxious neurotic than Mr. Savvy-McCool.
Ellen Page, who is in serious danger of losing my favor, played Diane Keaton to good effect. I prefer her angelic or, at most, quirkier than is operational, but that’s her voice which may be overcome at some point. Why is she losing favor? Possibly because of an appearance on some late night show where she looked like she thought she actually was Annie Hall. I found that disconcerting.
If you were concerned about Woody’s acting chops–have you picked up on my system, Woody is an actor, Allen is a director, and Woody Allen is a writer–which I was after I saw Scoop (2006), let me allay that fear. He does play a neurotic, but he’s nowhere near as shaky as he has played in other movies. He isn’t quite as normal as he was in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), but he’s very good.
In music, Allen has (mostly) eschewed the 30’s jazz, which I think have dominated every movie for the past decade, for some 60’s Euro pop. It’s a little zany, but you get used to it.
It’s as charming as Midnight in Paris (2011) and its satire harkens back to his earlier days. This one, however, is much better than those early movies. It think this is because (a) the satirical targets are limited in number and, therefore, more focused and (b) the painfully literal revelations of the whole point and meaning was mostly in a foreign language. Oh yeah, there’s going to be quite a few subtitles.
Is the writing closer to the highly concocted limit of Melinda and Melinda (2004) or the relatively subtle edge of Midnight in Paris? I’d say it’s about three-quarters of the way to Midnight in Paris. There are many examples of the stumbling blocks that are uncontracted words, but few words you only find in a thesaurus.
This is a solid addition to the Woody Allen catalog. Well worth checking out. It isn’t a must-see for non-Europhiles or serious Woody Allen fans. That is, it isn’t Midnight in Paris, but it’s good.